Coerced sexual initiation is generally defined as the use of persistent coercive strategies (i.e., psychological and emotional manipulation, verbal persuasion, or physical tactics) to initiate sexual contact. Only the tactics and strategies used to initiate sexual contact are specified in this definition, as it does not apply to a sexually coercive experience in its entirety. However, definitions of sexual coercion vary considerably in the existing literature, contributing to the difficulty inherent in defining coerced sexual initiation. For example, in some studies, sexual coercion is defined broadly and includes the use of alcohol or drugs to decrease the victim’s inhibitions to obtain sexual contact. In other studies, the use of physical force to coerce sexual contact is included in the definition of sexual coercion. Conversely, some studies focusing on sexually coercive behavior narrow the definition by excluding the use of physical force to obtain sexual contact, but still include physical tactics such as continual attempts to sexually arouse the victim and removal of clothing. Although coerced sexual initiation can lead to rape, the less severe tactics (e.g., verbal persuasion) are not currently included in the legal definition of rape. As defined by the Department of Justice, rape is the use of physical force or threats of physical force to obtain sexual intercourse without the consent of the victim, though specific definitions vary among state statutes. Sexual coercion differs from rape in that victims are coerced into consenting to sexual contact when they may not have initially agreed. It should be noted that consensual sexual experiences include many of the behaviors that are also considered coercive, such as removal of clothing, continued kissing, and genital touching, thus highlighting the crucial importance of the context in which these behaviors occur.
Verbal sexual coercion can be negative or positive and typically is used persistently until the desired outcome is achieved or the victim leaves the situation.
Negative verbal sexual coercion can take the form of threats to terminate the relationship, threats to obtain sex from someone else, swearing, or attempts to gain sympathy from the victim. Forms of positive verbal persuasion include using compliments (e.g., “I love you so much,” “You are so sexy”) or promises of a committed relationship to elicit sexual contact. Repeated requests, nagging, and pleas for sex are considered to be neutral verbal persuasion and are most common in established relationships. Emotional persuasion such as threats to end the relationship, or eliciting feelings of guilt in a partner, are more common in romantically established relationships in which the victim may feel sexually obligated to the perpetrator than in relationships between acquaintances or friends.
Physical coercion is the use of sexual contact in an attempt to arouse the victim (e.g., continued kissing, touching, or removal of clothing) and change the victim’s mind about furthering the sexual encounter. This tactic is more often employed in coercive experiences between acquaintances or friends than in committed relationships. In some cases, physically aggressive behaviors such as holding the victim down, threats of physical harm, or blocking the victim’s ability to leave are included in the definition of physically coercive tactics.
Research shows that alcohol and drugs may facilitate coerced sexual initiation by decreasing sexual inhibition and impairing the judgment of the victim. Perpetrators may encourage intoxication in a deliberate attempt to coerce sexual contact or may take advantage of someone who is already intoxicated and thus has a diminished capacity to resist the coercion. Furthermore, alcohol and drugs may contribute to coerced sexual initiation by decreasing the perpetrator’s ability to pick up on the victim’s cues communicating that he or she should stop.
The most frequently reported tactics of coerced sexual initiation are physical arousal and verbal persuasion, though in many cases a combination of tactics is used to coerce sexual contact. In general, men report using tactics of coerced sexual initiation more often than women do. According to female victims’ reports, men are more likely to use physical force, while women typically report using less “exploitative” tactics such as sexual arousal and verbal persuasion to coerce sexual contact. The literature generally suggests that women are more likely than men to be victims of sexually coercive tactics. However, at present, gender differences in coercive initiation of sex are difficult to assess, as there is a relative lack of research focusing on female perpetration and male victimization. Interestingly, it has been shown that women’s use of aggression and coercion in sexual experiences is not perceived in the same negative way as men’s use of the same tactics. It is possible that female perpetrators and male victims are less attuned to recognizing coercive tactics when they are used and/or that the consequences of women’s use of these tactics are less severe.
Research indicates that reasons for compliance with coerced sexual initiation can be extrinsic, such as wanting the perpetrator to stop requesting sexual contact, avoiding the potential for further aggression, or preserving the relationship. Acquiescence can also be due to intrinsic motivations such as a sense of obligation to the perpetrator, feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, or permissive attitudes regarding sex. Extrinsic motivations for compliance to coercion are more commonly reported than intrinsic motivations.
While coerced sexual initiation is generally not considered as serious as rape, both men and women report negative outcomes resulting from victimization, including increased tension in or termination of a romantic relationship or friendship with the perpetrator, psychological distress, and guilt associated with blaming oneself for what happened. Moreover, the high rates of depression, trauma symptoms, shame, and anger associated with sexual assault victimization in general may also be consequences of coerced sexual initiation.
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